Monday, February 27, 2017


By Tom Wachunas

   Oh my flabby abs! Be still, my Philly soul! If I have one complaint about the current Players Guild Theatre production of Sister Act, it’s that I split a gut laughing so much, all the while stinging my hands from so many spontaneous outbursts of applause. I hereby charge director Jonathan Tisevich, choreographer and co-director Michael Lawrence Akers, music director and conductor Steve Parsons and his orchestra, scenic designer Joshua Erichsen, lighting and sound designer Scott Sutton, costume designer Stephen Ostertag, the entire cast, and crew, with first-degree felonious exuberance. Yikes. Who do they think they are, Broadway professionals?

   And well they should. This business of the Players Guild mounting sprawling stage musicals with crazygreat local talent continues to be a very good habit in these parts. Nun but the best, I always say. Bless me Father, for I have punned.

    Based on the 1992 film comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg (and debuting on Broadway in 2011), the setting is 1977 Philadelphia, and tells the story of a vivacious night club entertainer and rising disco diva named Deloris Van Cartier, “as in Cartier’s,” says the sassy singer with a snap of her fingers. After she inadvertently witnesses bad-guy club owner, Curtis, commit a murder, she needs to enter protective custody and hide. “You mean I gotta go incognegro?” she wryly asks Eddie, the timid cop who harbors  romantic feelings for her. He promptly whisks her away to the unlikeliest of places - Queen of Angels Church and convent. There, life will fast become raucously… unconventional for her and newfound sisters, initially much to the dismay of the righteous Mother Superior.

   Mother, however, begrudgingly finds a way for Deloris, disguised as Sister Mary Clarence, to temporarily fit into the community by letting her sing with  the choir. When the eager Deloris asks if the sisters sing well, the weary Mother replies simply, “There are no words.” Indeed, when we first encounter this apparently tone-deaf ensemble, we hear arguably the scariest aural cacophony to ever grace a stage. Hey, it requires great skill to sound this horrific. But Deloris dutifully transforms the group into a veritable choral phenomenon that can regale us with heavenly harmonies, as in the song “Bless Our Show,” as well as execute electrifying disco dance gyrations in the show-stopping “Raise Your Voice.”

   Speaking of a vocal phenomenon, watching Joy Ellis in her role of Deloris is to be immersed in a marvelously radiant presence. She is eminently gifted with a very refined technical prowess along with a finessed and invigorating emotive power. In her facile joining of those aspects, her fervor becomes infectious, generating all the dimensionality of, appropriately enough, a spiritual experience.

   The show is consistently enriched by many remarkable passages. Among them, Meg Hopp, as Mother Superior, is a genuinely gripping character throughout, and no more so than when, with urgent  warmth, she intones her frustrations in “I Haven’t Got A Prayer.”  Likewise, playing the sweetly nervous postulant Sister Mary Robert, Sarah Marie Young is riveting and robust when she questions her decision to be a nun in “The Life I Never Led.”  Julie Connair, as Sister Mary Patrick, leads her giddy cohorts in the hilariously biting “It’s Good To Be A Nun,” and is otherwise all bubbly mirth when she’s on stage. 

   Both Demetrius Rodriguez as Eddie, and Willis Gordon as Curtis, smoothly render sinewy shades of classic Soul and R&B music. Rodriguez’s ballad, “I Could Be That Guy,” is utterly heartrending. Curtis’s “When I Find My Baby” is a chilling study in malicious intent. Meanwhile, Curtis sends his trio of inept thugs - played to the hilt by Micah Harvey as Joey, Brandon Talbert as TJ, and Russell Jones as Pablo - to find and eliminate Deloris. Their schmaltzy, fumbling postures as would-be seducers in “Lady In The Long Black Dress” is itself a piece of comedic genius. 
   If ever there was a benevolent Players Guild conspiracy to rattle our funny bones, warm our hearts with unfettered glee, and brightly illuminate the astonishing abundance of serious theatrical and musical talent in our own back yard, this is it. Here’s to wondrously raised voices and spreading the love around. I rest my case.

   SISTER ACT, at Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / THROUGH MARCH 12 / Shows at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday / Tickets $27 adult, $24 seniors 55 and older, $19 ages 17 and younger / Available at  or call box office at 330- 454- 8172

    PHOTOS, by Michael Akers, from top: 1. Joy Ellis as Sister Clarence, leading the choir / 2. Joy Ellis as Deloris Van Cartier / 3. Meg Hopp as Mother Superior / 4. Sarah Marie Young (left) as Sister Mary Robert, with Joy Ellis

Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Woman's Cosmos In A Man's World

 A Woman’s Cosmos In A Man’s World

By Tom Wachunas

    Without waxing too technical about the specifics of Henrietta Leavitt’s (1868-1921) contributions to our knowledge of the cosmos, suffice it to say that in her tireless work as an astronomer at Harvard College Observatory in the early years of the 20th century, she essentially paved the way for deciphering how we determine the age and size of the universe. Inspired by Leavitt’s life, playwright Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky is a truly remarkable accomplishment. Gunderson’s lovingly crafted masterpiece of equipoise is an emotionally gripping look at an insatiable pursuit of arcane science amidst equally compelling yearnings of the human heart. For a more comprehensive look at the play and its history, here’s a very useful link: 
   On the cusp of Women’s History Month, this current production is directed by Brian Newberg, Associate Professor of Theatre & Theatre Director of the Kent State Stark Theatre Program. He has assembled a sharp and sensitive ensemble of five gifted individuals who deliver a wondrously nuanced performance, replete with both pathos and humor that’s, well… stellar in every sense of the word. Even the elegant simplicity of the scenic design by Louis Williams – with a stage set made up of a few pieces of furniture and a raised, railed platform that doubles at one point as the deck of and ocean vessel – is often infused with projections of starry nights and Milky Way panoramas.

   The timeline is 1900-1920. Cashing in her dowry, Henrietta Leavitt (Morgan Brown) leaves her home where she’s been living with her musician sister, Margaret (Emily Weiss), and father, a Congregational Church minister, to live her dream of doing serious research as an astronomer at Harvard College Observatory. There, she’s quickly mortified and frustrated  to learn that she was hired only to count stars and measure their luminosity as recorded on glass plate photographs made by the grand telescope which women are not allowed to use. She and her co-workers, Annie Cannon (Breanna Morton) and Williamina Fleming (Jacki Dietz), are regarded by their male bosses, including their immediate supervisor, Peter Shaw (Jesse Fulks), simply as “human computers” – bean counters, as it were. Ever undaunted – even obsessive - in her insistence on finding the truth and meaning of her/our place in our galaxy (and beyond, as it turns out), Leavitt discovers not only significant physical realities, but much about herself as well. The education of head and heart. Just so, she sacrifices much, in the process eschewing society’s traditional expectations of romance and domestic family life.

   Imagine the cast as a solar system, with Morgan Brown’s radiant portrayal of Leavitt as the center, holding the other characters – luminous entities in their own right – in orbit. Brown is not just believable, but also wholly magnetic as she articulates Leavitt’s longing and struggle to affirm her identity in an unsympathetic, indeed oppressive patriarchal milieu. She forges an increasingly sturdy bond with her office colleagues. Breanna Morton, as Annie, is at first a distant and demanding taskmaster, but visibly softens as her understanding of, and support for, Leavitt grows. No doubt her softening is greatly aided by Jacki Dietz’s charismatic portrait of the feisty, no-nonsense Williamina. In her startlingly authentic Scottish accent, Dietz provides many of the evening’s wisest observations and funniest passages. 

   Meanwhile, Jesse Fulks, often a target of the ladies’ ridicule, brings an exquisitely crafted awkwardness and shyness to his reading of Peter Shaw, apprentice to the observatory’s head scientist, Dr. Pickering. His respect for, then infatuation with Leavitt,  blossoms into a matter of the heart, the hope of a nervous suitor, as he at one point asks her, just before embarking on a research trip to Europe, if they could “…continue the experiment of our mutual compatibility” when he returns.  So OK, he’s a scientist, not a poet. Still, this play has as much if not more poetry than astrophysics.

   Through it all, Emily Weiss convincingly presents Leavitt’s sister, Margaret, as a faithful homemaker while caring for their ailing father. Gentle and patient if not occasionally resentful, she’s the picture of sincerity as she desperately tries to grasp the depths of her sister’s impassioned search for answers to cosmic questions.

   In fact it’s Margaret’s playing a lilting melody on her piano that spurs Henrietta to ultimately see the music of the spheres, as it were… to discern an order and pattern to those puzzling pulses of light visible from across impossible distances. The play concludes on a bittersweet albeit tender note. It’s an altogether inspiring remembrance of Leavitt’s legacy.

    More importantly, in these volatile times, the play is a timely beacon and an urgent reminder. Gender bias should never be permitted to squelch our pursuit of knowledge, the affirmation of our purpose, or the realization of our destinies. 
   Silent Sky, at Kent State University At Stark Theatre / Located in the Fine Arts building on Kent Stark campus, 6000 Frank Ave. NW in North Canton / Performances Feb. 25, March 3 & 4 at 7:30 p.m. / Feb. 26 & March 5 at 2 p.m. / Tickets: $10 for adults and $7 for non-Kent State students and senior citizens. All Kent State students admitted free of charge with current student ID. For more information about the show and ensemble members, or to reserve tickets online, go to  or call the Kent State Stark Theatre Box Office at 330-244-3348, Mondays through Fridays from 1 to 5 p.m.

TOP PHOTO, left to right: Emily Weiss, Jesse Fulks, Jacki Dietz, Morgan Brown, Breanna Morton

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Zine Language

Zine Language 

By Tom Wachunas

                                    “I knew when I met you an adventure was going to happen.”
                                     ― A.A. Milne

EXHIBIT: Nannyville – Drawings, Prints and Zines by Elizabeth Dallas / Kent State University at Stark MAIN HALL ART GALLERY / 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio / THROUGH FEBRUARY 28 / Viewing hours: Monday – Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

    My apologies for being so late in telling you about this exhibit, as the last day for viewing is Feb. 28. I confess that the primary reason for my tardiness is that it has taken a longer-than-usual while for me to get a read on my own thoughts. This is a bit ironic, since much of the work on view here is itself confessional in nature, and otherwise about…reading.

   Elizabeth Dallas has turned the gallery into an open book, as it were. This busy collection of her drawings, collages, and one huge (49” x 33”) woodcut print doesn’t have the pristine, formal look of conventional gallery exhibits. Nothing is framed or matted or under glass. The pieces, all executed on paper, are simply pinned very loosely to the wall in a way that suggests how some artists might casually put up sketch book pages on their studio walls.  An accumulated inventory of visual ideas.

   There is an ordered sequence here, though, beginning with a grouping of black and white drawings done in what appears to be ink pen and felt-tipped markers. These describe Dallas’s journey (an adventure, to be sure) as a nanny. Boldly contoured images – sometimes akin to styles you might find in comics or coloring books - incorporate brief texts that describe a wide range of moments, sentiments, and reflections. Some read like altruistic or streetwise slogans, others are more edgy, occasionally cynical declarations. Still others are tender, even poetic acknowledgements of Dallas’s interactions with the child in her care. These are the original illustrations that Dallas photocopied to make her zine (short for magazine, or fanzine) titled “Learning to Love in…Nannyville.” 

   The aforementioned large woodcut is placed halfway along the gallery’s longest wall. In one way, it’s a conclusion, or perhaps a lesson summing up the zine images, its text declaring, “You Being You Makes Me Excited About Being Me.” You might also think of it as a thematic bridge to the content of the colored drawings and collages that comprise the other half of the exhibit. These in turn have an episodic feel and a probing spirit, like snapshots of remembered or overheard conversations, philosophical observations, or descriptions of social exchanges and attitudes.

   Beyond the facile directness and simplicity of Dallas’s drawing style, what I find most striking about the exhibit is how its impromptu spirit and unadorned presentation enhances the artworks’ physicality. The loosely mounted drawings cast shadows on the wall. They are, after all, tangible small objects bearing marks of the artist’s hand. Flipping through Dallas’s zine (displayed in a rack mounted on the wall along with some other zines), is a tactile, intimate exercise. Though just a pamphlet relatively speaking, it’s still not too unlike the unique intimacy one can experience in savoring a paperback, i.e. a book, a collection of papers covered with configurations – drawings of a kind - made of words.  
   So Dallas has given us an illustrated journal, or diary if you will – a narrative of day-to-day memories and musings. Her story- its particulars of specific people, places, and things aside - is in the end still a very  human one, and as such could converge or resonate with yours or mine to one degree or another. All of us have experienced adventures, nurtured relationships, laughed in moments of joy, cried in seasons of sadness, felt triumph and failure. All of us have stories of wrestling with our demons or walking with our better angels. 

   I think of this show as an invitation to have an adventure, to nurture the act of looking, to connect with another person’s story. Dallas being herself can make us excited about being us.